There is no question about it; parental separation or divorce is hardest on the children invovled. Partners, no matter how painful their loss is, will eventually heal and move through this period. It is the children who will deal with it, in some way shape or another, for the rest of their lives. Sure, they will survive. They heal. They may even progress along better without al that shouting and yelling. But, their lives will be altered none-the-less. Weekends with Dad. Separate graduation celebrations. Holiday traditions divided into different households and dictated by calendars and court mandates. Two toothbrushes. Time splintered. I may not remember the day my dad left my mom, but I do remember the years that followed.
"Don't wear that shirt to your dads this weekend. I just bought it for you. Wear something old. Tell him to buy you new clothing because your mom is broke," my mom would announce on our way out the door. Down the block. Around the corner. Even the weekend pick-ups were orchestrated so that They (parents) did not see one another. "And don't forget to ask him for the check. He's always LATE," she would routinely add.
This was the early 80's and though divorce was in fashion, parents knew little of how to help their children survive it. With new laws regarding custody and child support changing quarterly, my mother actually posted a graph on the wall beside her bed to keep current with the increases in 'what she was owed', a term that flew around our house quite often.
This was the 80's though.
Now we have books, Dr. Phil, and a list of mistakes my parents made so that you don't need to:
1.) "Your dad/mom did this to me!" Yes, your partner may have hurt you. Very badly. Very very badly. But saying his name like it was yesterday's trash will only fuel the anxiety your children feel about family, home and relationships. Don't use your children as therapists. They are not your confidants about the separation. They do not need to know how angry you are at your ex; they also do not need to know his/her trespassings. They may be your ex, but this person is still a role model, a father, a mother, a step-parent to your child. A child's love is whole and encompassing and their loss is no different. Your child's relationship with your ex does not need to be destroyed because yours was.
2.) "Tell you dad to bring the check" AND
3.) "Tell me honey, does your dad/mom have a new car/new 'friend', new house, new job?"
This is one of the hardest on your children. Don't put them in the middle. Don't use them as weapons or spies. They are not mail carriers nor investigators. They are your children. They may want to please you but they will know one day, if not now, that they are being used. Instead, talk to your ex-partner. Be adults about it. Role model for your children that despite being very angry, you two can still be reasonable and compassionate. In other words, you two can still be adults.
4.) "If your dad/mom had never left Us...." Don't make the separation about your children. They already are wandering about trying to figure out what they did wrong to make this all happen. They already have figured out at least 2-3 things they have done to make this their fault. Tell them it is not their fault. Make sure they know that this was not something they had any control over or will ever have any control over. Reassure them that you both love them, that you both are sad that they have to go through this, that you will get through this together as a family and that sometimes it will hurt but that you are always there for them. Resist blame. Resist the urge to lash out on your ex in front of your children. Resist these urges, which are in fact normal, and take care of yourself. Talk to your friends about how lousy and horrible your ex was or is. Torture your best friends with those cathartic explorations, not your children. If you don't happen to have a friend with whom you can share, get some help from a therapist. Therapists won't be damaged by your rantings. They wont tell you to "get over it" and they may be able to help you get through this tragedy with a little more self-knowledge and direction than you had before. What is that saying now? What does not kill you, makes you stronger. Don't believe it. It is only by working through our difficulties and facing ourselves do we become stronger from injury.
5.) "Honey, bring me another beer" Don't mope around the house and empty glasses of liquor you had your child fill. Remember it is day by day. In the meantime, try to maintain life as usual to some extent. Continue playing with your children, pillow fights, dinner at 6, homework before TV, etc. With any major transition, it is important to keep some things predictable. Children thrive in structured, predictable environments. They will adapt but they need to know that the world has not just been taken out from under them. Their is a stable foundation on which they stand. There may be moves, changes in schools, financial situations, and even blended families later on down the road, but the basic structures of their days should remain the same as much as possible.
Helping your children through a divorce or separation requires you to listen to them most of all. They will have their own feelings. These feelings may be hard for you to hear or relate to at the time when you are hurting most. That is OK because you are experiencing this differently. It is Ok if they are sad or mad about it. Let them talk to you and hear them out. Ask them questions if they are not talking. Color with them, play with them and engage them. Try, as much as feasible, to tell your children about the separation with your partner/ex-partner. It will be difficult. Let it be. It is not meant to be a walk in the park, but nor is it meant to be an excuse to be an indulgent or self-centered parent. Give yourself room to grieve your own loss and losses. If and when you are ready to move on, make sure your children have some say in the future "new" life you all will share.
And by the way, children forgive parents. My mother and father did a number on us kids with their separation but in the end, we are still family. I still love them. And I'm sure I got them both back during my teenage years. Let this be a gentle warning that you may not suffer as they did.